A Century of Dishonor: Summary & Author

Instructor: Sharon Linde
Though written more than a hundred years ago, 'The Century of Dishonor' remains a powerful voice detailing the plight of Native Americans. This lesson will summarize its main concepts and introduce you to its author.

Honorable Intentions

In 1882, Helen Hunt Jackson wrote the book A Century of Dishonor. She used the book to detail injustices Native Americans faced and had been facing for years. The book wasn't meant to simply be a narrative of the treatment of Native Americans; instead, Jackson researched and wrote meticulous accounts in the hopes of invoking social change. In fact, she sent copies of the book to every member of congress with a personal message and call to action.

What was it about Jackson that made her take on this cause? Let's take a peek at her life to find out.

Helen Hunt Jackson

Born in 1830, Helen Fiske was orphaned at 14. Luckily, her father, a professor at Amherst College as well as an author and minister, prepared for her education; she attended a female seminary before marrying Edward Hunt in 1852. Though she had two sons, both of them and her husband were dead by 1865.

Author Helen Hunt Jackson
Helen hunt jackson

After the death of her family, Jackson began writing poetry and stories using a pseudonym. She also traveled that year to Colorado Springs to look for a cure for tuberculosis. While there she met her second husband, William Jackson. She published three novels (again anonymously) titled the No Name Series beginning in 1873. Helen married William in 1875.

Interest in Native Americans

In 1879, Helen traveled to Boston and attended a lecture by the Ponca tribe chief Chief Standing Bear. Hearing details on how the tribe was mistreated enraged Jackson, and she began researching the matter. She also raised public awareness of the abuses suffered by the Native Americans by writing letters to the New York Times, having petitions signed and raising funds. It was her intent to advertise the United States government's treatment of Native Americans.

Chief Standing Bear
chief standing bear

Jackson was said to be a high-spirited woman. She used her talent as a writer and her passion for causes to expose the government's misconduct. Along the way she began to document the corruption she uncovered; several newspapers published her research, bringing the issue to the forefront of Americans' minds.

Jackson Writes a Book

In 1881, Jackson took her extensive research and published the first book listing her as the author, A Century of Dishonor. She begins her account about the time of the American Revolution, the mid-1770s, and details:

  • the mistreatment of seven major Native American tribes: the Delaware, Cheyenne, Sioux, Nez Perce, Ponca, Winnebago and Cherokee
  • broken promises and treaties issued by the United States government to these tribes
  • forced removal of tribes to reservations located on unsuitable land for farming or sustaining the Native American way of life
  • massacres of the Native American people by whites

The book is written in ten chapters, including an introduction, seven chapters each dedicated to the tribes named above, one chapter dedicated to three major massacres, and a conclusion. In the introduction Jackson lays out an argument of land entitlement, going back to the 1600s as reference and detailing how it became understood the Native Americans did not rightfully own the land they occupied when settlers arrived.

Reception for A Century of Dishonor

Jackson hoped to rally the American public behind her and persuade (or push) the government to right their wrongs. In 1881, the Indian Rights Association was created, and the Dawes Act was passed. This law required reservations to be broken up into plots. The book is also credited with inspiring the organization of several associations and conferences, such as the Lake Mohonk Conference of the Friends of the Indians and the Women's National Indian Association.

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